In Utah, if you are not a felon, and if you have not been deemed mentally ill, then it is perfectly legal to openly carry a 3-foot sword — even a real one.
So, it is hard to explain what it was that 22-year-old Darrien Hunt was doing last week to raise the suspicions and, in short order, the side arms of two officers from the Saratoga Springs, Utah, police department.
Hunt was shot and killed by those officers last Wednesday near a strip mall in this small but growing town just south of Salt Lake City.
Hunt, a tall, thin man with an afro-style haircut, was of mixed race, but most, including his mother, would identify him as a person of color.
“They killed my son because he’s black. No white boy with a little sword would they shoot while he’s running away,” Susan Hunt said to the Deseret News.
The police officers in this case are white, as is 93 percent of Saratoga Springs, according to the 2010 census (the city is 0.5 percent black).
The killing occurred within a month of other high-profile shootings of young black men by white cops, including the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Kajieme Powell in St. Louis, and John Crawford III in Beavercreek, Ohio.
Along with the questions around the sword — which police said was “steel-like” with a “sharpened point,” but Hunt family members described as a “souvenir” with a rounded edge from a “gift shop” — several other troubling data points have given this story a national profile.
Police initially said Hunt had lunged at them, but the accounts of eyewitnesses say Hunt was shot while running away. He died some 100 yards away from where the alleged confrontation with police began. And a private autopsy commissioned by the family says that Hunt was shot five times from behind — the fatal wound entering in the center of the back with no exit wound.
It is also reported that there is surveillance video from the bank and fast food restaurant in the strip mall outside of which the shooting took place, but that footage has not yet been made public.
On Wednesday, Utah County officials altered their account of the incident to explain the discrepancies, saying that Hunt first lunged, was then “shot at,” and then ran before being killed. Still in question, whether Hunt was hit the first time police fired, or whether he “lunged again” after he ran away.
The attorney for the Hunt family told The Guardian, “This appears to be a major change in the official story.”
The adjusted account follows angry pushback from the Saratoga Springs police department, accusing the media of hyping the story.
“Everyone should remember that the news outlets have ratings they need to gain. They don’t report facts. They use innuendo, opinion and rumor and then report it as fact,” said the police in an unsigned statement, published on the department’s Facebook page and reported by The Guardian before being removed.
The Facebook post continued, “The real facts are being determined by an independent investigation, and not in a rushed or haphazard manner.”
That might be an understatement. When Utah authorities released their adjusted account, they also revealed that the still-unnamed officers in the incident, now on paid leave, were yet to be questioned about the shooting.
The county said that police are typically interviewed 48 to 72 hours after an incident. In this case, one officer was reportedly scheduled to be interviewed on Tuesday (six days after the shooting), and one was expected to meet investigators on Thursday (more than a week after Hunt’s death).
While such “cooling off” periods are not unique to Utah, they are more often in the one- to three-day range. Even that delay has been criticized by watchdog groups as giving officers too much time to confer and get their stories straight, but the long delays in Saratoga Springs bear an uncomfortable similarity to the missing days in the Ferguson case, and have raised the suspicions of the Hunt family counsel.
“I’m stunned. I find that almost incomprehensible,” Randall Edwards, the attorney for the family, told The Guardian. “You want to speak with the officers almost immediately afterwards, when their memories are fresh and before they have had a chance to corroborate their stories.”
There are also parallels between Hunt’s shooting and other recent deaths at the hands of law enforcement, including questions about tactics, training and the ability of officers to intervene without escalating a situation.
Similarly up for scrutiny is how police are taught to handle mentally impaired or disturbed individuals.
While Darrien Hunt’s family insists he was not mentally handicapped in any way, many interviewed by reporters also said the 22-year-old seemed more like he was 15. “A boy in a man’s body,” said his mother; “a child at heart,” a family friend told The Guardian.
Hunt’s slow development has been attributed to a rough childhood. Susan Hunt moved her family from Virginia to Utah, reportedly to extricate herself and her children from an abusive spouse. “He was trying to catch up,” said Darrien’s aunt, Cindy Moss, in an interview with The Guardian. “He could have lost a little bit of time with some of the stuff that went on.”
The domestic abuse is but another of the threads in this story that coincides with current national concerns. Questions about police training and tactics, the way such deaths are investigated, and, of course, the ongoing, never-finished national discussion around race and class, all add up to make the killing of Darrien Hunt one family’s tragic loss, and part of a larger national tragedy.